Pizza and beer. Beer and pizza. They’re the peanut butter and jelly of Italian-American food. But beer and pasta? Beer and a nice rare Fiorentina steak? Beer in place of that ubiquitous aperitivo glass of prosecco? It’s unthinkable. It’s blasphemous. Except, of course, that it’s not. Birra artiginale (that’s Italian for craft beer) has arrived in Italy and taken over the neighborhood. And with it has come an interest in beer as something more than just to slake thirst or wash down the obligatory pizza.
“Enjoyment has always played a central role to eating and drinking in Italy,” says Medea Tappeiner, a sommelier at Harpf’s Drink Store, a craft beer, wine and gourmet food market in Bruneck, in Italy’s mountainous South Tyrol region. “Italians love high-quality food and drink, and that appreciation is really central to the Italian experience.” When artisanal beers started to gain traction, Tappeiner explains, people became more interested in what foods they could pair with these complex beers. Now, she says, it’s not unusual for clients to come in with a menu in mind and seek suggestions for beer pairings.
On the flip side, Teo Musso is the founder of Baladin, arguably the best-known of Italy’s numerous craft breweries. He is largely credited with taking the craft beer movement in Italy mainstream and, for the effusive Musso, it’s always been about beer and food. “Since I launched Baladin in 1996, I started thinking that my beers could be paired with food with the real intention of enhancing the taste of both,” he says. “The endless possibilities of creating flavors through the combination of ingredients makes beer perfect to be served with any kind of food.” To emphasize his point, Musso began selling Baladin in 750 ml bottles—the same size and shape as a wine bottle—with the aim to convince diners that they could enjoy a bottle of beer as an accompaniment to their meal just as easily as they could a bottle of wine. “We want everyone to understand the potential of this wonderful product of the Earth!”
Getting Past the Prosecco
What types of beers might the experts recommend with a typical Italian meal? The first step is to get beyond one of Italy’s go-to pairings: prosecco. The beloved sparkling wine is favored as a light, celebratory drink for aperitivo, or happy-hour. Celebrity chef Rick Moonen of RM Seafood in Las Vegas and “Top Chef Masters” fame, recommends swapping that prosecco for a lambic—such as Cantillon or Allagash Brewing Company’s Coolship line. Moonen says, lambics have the fine bubbles of prosecco, and is often flavored with fruit, such as cherry, blackberry or peach. “Put it in a champagne flute and serve it with some cheese, ” he says. “You’d never know the difference.”
Francesco Dappio of Bir & Fud, a craft brewpub in Rome where—as the name suggests—the emphasis is on beer and food pairings, is understandably a bit nationalistic when it comes to prosecco substitutes. He suggests an Italian grape ale, made from adding grapes during the fermentation process. The result is not sweet, but rather an ale with a touch of grapey fruitiness and acidity. Grape ale is a relatively young brewing method, and Italy’s ode to lambic. If you’re in country, scout out Bruton’s Limes series or a Nebiulin-A from Loverbeer. If you’re in the U.S., you may find a bona-fide Italian grape ale in a well-curated beer shop, or seek out the next best thing, a bottle of Noble Rot from Delaware’s Dogfish Head.
Francesco de Santis, proprietor of La Panatella, an elegant osteria in Allerona, Italy, has a different idea to go with that cheese plate: witbier (biere blanche, or white beer or weissbier, depending on your corner of the world). Flavored with coriander and citrus, this beer has an acidity to stand up to the creaminess and pungency of the cheese. In Italy, it’s Spiravento from Birra Artigianale Amèna. If you’re closer to home, try Off Color Brewing’s Troublesome.
Pairings for Pasta
A glass of wine next to a heaping plate of pasta is an archetypally Italian image, but there’s no law, unwritten or otherwise, that says you can’t pair pasta with beer. Instead of that straw-covered bottle of cheap chianti next to a heaping plate of red sauce, Tappeiner suggests a fresh and aromatic saison. The farmhouse-style beer compliments the acidity of the tomatoes. Tabularasa from Toccalmatto beers are fairly easy to find at speciality brewpubs and shops in the States. For pasta with a little more kick to it, such as an arrabbiata, Tappiener says an Italian pilsner “is interestingly hoppy and fits well if the sauce is spicy.” Birrificio Italiano’s Tipopils is the Lake Como brewery’s flagship beer and is widely available stateside. Maine’s Tributary Brewing Company has also been known to cook up its own Italian Pilsner.
Meat Me for a Beer
To stand up to a bistecca alla fiorentina, the Italian version of a thick-cut, rare-cooked T-bone steak, impulse is to reach for something equally formidable, such as a boozy bock beer from Birra Venezia. But Moonen disagrees. “We have this mentality in our heads of red wine with meat and white wine with fish or chicken, so we tend to go for dark beer with red meat,” he says. “But I actually like a refreshing beer with a steak, like a pilsner.” Dappio of Bir & Fud says it’s a question of season, too. “Maybe in cold weather, a nice structured bock” would go well with that hunk of red meat. “But it’s hard to drink a half-liter of 7.5 % [ABV] beer in the summer,” he says. “So on a hot August day, I’d pair it with a saison.” Go for his brewery’s own Wayan, a saison beer with citrusy, peppery tones.
The Big Finish
After all this consideration, cheese, pasta, red meat all seem like reasonable things to pair with a nice glass of beer. But dessert remains the realm of sherry, right? According to our beer experts, that’s a big misconception. Both Tappeiner and Dappio sing the praises of a cream-based dessert, such as tiramisu or panna cotta, paired with an Italian barleywine. Sweetened, aged in barrels and often uncarbonated, “It’s higher in sugar and alcohol,” says Tappeiner, “and similar, if less intense, to a port or other fortified wine.” Sardinia’s Barley Craft Brewery makes a line of beers as robust as the island itself, and its BBevò barleywine is ideal for sipping in tandem with something sweet. Dark chocolate paired with beer can apparently be a transformative taste experience. Years later, Moonen still fondly recalls a flourless chocolate cake paired with a double bock. “It was out-of-this-world orgasmic,” he says.
I’ll have what he’s having.